An alternative hypothesis of the McCulloch surname origin
Updated May 31, 2022
The origins of the McCulloch surname are undocumented, allowing others to foist on McCullochs a dubious and unbecoming origin story. The the modern explanation that the surname derives from mac colluch, meaning “son of the boar,” is repeated without hesitation. However, this speculation seems dubious at best.
In the “Surnames of Scotland,” George Black writes that the earliest recorded McCulloch – Sheriff Thomas MacUlagh, count de Wyggton – chose a squirrel, not a boar, for his seal. (Also see “Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland Preserved in Her Majesty’s Public Record Office, London: A. D. 1272-1307” p550 for a description of the seal). This alone should call into question the “son of the boar” conjecture. (Also see McCulloch Coats of Arms).
While it is true that “colloch“ is Gaelic for boar, the standardization of the spelling as McCulloch was centuries in the making. The earliest recorded spellings included MacUlauth; Maculagh; mc’ culauhc; Mccvulli; M’owlache; Makcowlach; MacKullouch, and Macolaghe. Based on these varied early spellings, it would seem apparent that the explanation that the name derives from mac “colloch” is an anachronism dating after the standardization of the spelling.
In his “History of the Hereditary Sheriffs of Galloway,” Sir Andrew Agnew scoffs at the idea that McCulloch derives from son of the boar. Agnew, ever the story teller, relays the oral tradition that the name honors a local 6th century ruler named Gwallog or Gwallawc who was buried on the McCulloch land of Torhouse. The idea that 6th century Gwallog was buried under the neolithic standing stones is a laughable anachronism. While this makes for a grand story, we don’t have any definitive link between Gwallog and the lands near the McCullochs. Agnew hints at a much more reasonable origin story in a footnote. Agnew points out there are records of a Bishop MaKwolok who died around 733. Agnew uses the name “Makwolok” as entered in a 1598 Kalendar of Scottish Saints. However, the bishop was more commonly known as Saint Walloch, or Volocus in Latin.
St. Walloch served for some time at St. Ninians “Candida Casa” in Whithorn before pursuing his Christian missions work with the Pictish people in northeastern Scotland. There is an Irish tradition that St. Walloch was actually Faelchu, Abbott of Iona from 717-724 AD. In other words, “Walloch” was not a given forename, but a nickname.
Interestingly, the word “walloch” in modern Scots seems to denote “pride” but has both positive and negative connotations. In Scots, “walloch” means a boisterous person who speaks loudly (proudly), or with a distinctive accent. St. Walloch is often described as a foreigner. This could be an anachronism, or it could be that the Picts nicknamed as loud, proud, and distinctive. The more positive connotation suggests “responsibility.”
Several churches and other sites in Northeastern Scotland bear St. Walloch’s name. Closer to Whithorn, there is a Knockwalloch (Kirkpatrick Durham) near Castle Douglas to this day. Studies in the Topography of Galloway transcribes the name alternatively as Knockculloch in English, or Cnoc uallach in Gaelic. The Rev. W. A. Stark claims that the hill is named for St. Walloch.
Could the McCulloch’s have chose a name to honor St. Walloch?
Comparing this Gaelic name “uallach” to the records of the earliest McCullochs makes a compelling case that the name includes the word “uallach.” In Gaelic, such a name would be “mac ualloch.” Many of the earliest medieval records recorded the name with mac followed next by a vowel “u” or “ou,” rather than a “C.”
Claiming a link to St. Walloch would be an attempt to legitimize the family by associating it with the founding of Christianity in Scotland by St. Ninian. The seat of Clan McCulloch was Myretoun Castle. It was in walking distance to Whithorn, arguably the most revered Christian site in medieval Scotland. In “Galloway: A Land Apart,” Andrew McCulloch tells the story that King James IV elevated Myretoun into a burgh of barony in 1499 as a reward for Alexander’s hospitality at Myretoun during King James III’s pilgrimages to Whithorn. Alexander even carried the “host” at the front of the king’s procession.
As further evidence of the importance of the Christian saints to the McCulloch families, the McCullochs named various sons after saints Patrick and Ninian.
How then could “mac Uallach” be confused with “mac Collach?”
To understand the difficulty of anglicizing the Gaelic word “uallach,” listen to this song and try to hear the word “uallach.” (In this song the word is used to mean pompous. Other connotations of the word are proud or even responsible).
A Man Called “Uallach”
Alternatively, it’s possible the name derives from a 13th century man named Uallach. The available late 13th century documents pertaining to the McCullochs indicate that other notable families of Wigtownshire like the MacDowells and Ascolocs had not formally adopted the Norman surname practice by the end of the 13th century. However, names like McCulloch and MacDowell come into usage about this time. When Thomas, Michael McCulloch, and William sign the Ragman Rolls as Mac Ulagh, the context would seem to indicate they are actually referring to their father called “Ulagh.” As such, it is not likely that the McCullochs were honoring a local saint from centuries gone by. Rather, it is more likely they are honoring their actual father, who like St. Walloch appears to have been nicknamed “Uallach.”
Other name origins
Current Y DNA analysis shows that not all McCullochs and McCulloughs are genetically related through their paternal line. Likewise, we know that the modern Anglicized names of McCulloch and McCullough have multiple origins. For instance, the Scottish names of McLullich and McKelly have on occasion become McCulloch. We also know that the name McCullough, derive from Gaelic names “mac con Uladh” or “mac cu Uladh,” each meaning son of the hound of Ulster. Early recorded uses of the name Mac Con Uladh include a report of a violent incident in which a James or Seamus Mac Con Uladh was killed in 1532 in Dunbo, Derry, Ireland, and five Kings of Ulster in the 12th century. This is evidence that the name was in use in Ireland before the Scottish settlements of the Ulster Plantation in the early 17th century.
Photo: Whithorn Priory by James Stringer